A new post from Rev. David Schoen. Rev. Schoen’s new guide Facing Your Church’s Uncertain Future: Helpful Practices for Courageous Conversations & Faithful Decisions is now available on UCC Resources. To contact Rev. Schoen, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How does the age of clergy impact their congregations and the church?
In 2017, Barna Research released a study on the Aging of America’s Pastors. This study of church pastors found that the average age of clergy rose from 44 in 1992 to 54 in 2017. In 1992 “One in three pastors was under the age of 40, and one in four was over 55. Just 6 percent were 65 or older. Twenty-five years later,… Only one in seven pastors is under 40, and half are over 55. The percentage of church leaders 65 and older has nearly tripled, meaning there are now more pastors in the oldest age bracket than there are leaders younger than 40.”
The 2018 UCC Statistical Profile compiled by the UCC Center for Analytics, Research, and Data finds the same aging of clergy in our denomination. “When all active (non-retired) Authorized Ministers were considered, over one half were age 60 and above (54.1%) and over one-fourth were 50-59 (25.5%), making 79.6% of all active ministers age 50 and over.” The percentage of pastors under 50 decreased since 2004 from 25% to 20%. Although the percentage of younger clergy under 40 years old increased slightly, it was still only 7.8%.
The Barna report suggests these reasons for this graying of clergy:
- People living longer
- ‘Second career clergy’ increased over the past two decades
- Economic crisis of 2008 negatively impacted clergy pension plans, home values, 401(k)s
- Many older pastors are not financially ready to forego a steady paycheck
- Declining number of Christians in younger generations
- Potential young leaders attracted to entrepreneurial vocations other than church ministry
- Potential young leaders turned off by ‘institutional baggage of church’
What is the impact of this aging of clergy on congregations? The Aging Pastor and Healthy Growing Church study researched the correlation of clergy age to the health of their congregation, as well as how the age of a pastor correlates to the age of their congregation members. The research was based on responses to the 2015 Faith Communities Today (FACT) survey as well as Natural Church Development data from 2008-2017.
The Aging Pastor and Healthy Growing Church research showed that clergy age impacts congregations in these ways:
- Younger clergy (under 50 years) are driving the largest share of church growth in the US
- Younger pastors lead churches rated as healthier compared to older pastors
- Younger clergy lead congregations with more adults younger than 50, Young Adults, Youth and Children than older clergy
- Aging pastors lead congregations with a greater percentage of older members
- Younger clergy are oriented more to goals than older pastors who tend to be service and people oriented
In her report on Congregations and Change: Findings from the FACT 2015 Survey, Rev. Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi, Ph.D. found that ‘high change’ congregations, congregations that engage and embrace adaptive change had primary leaders/pastors who were younger than ‘no/slow change’ congregations. “High Change was significantly correlated with other characteristics such as being spiritually vital and alive, willing to change to meet new challenges, and intentional about maximizing the number and variety of small groups offered. High change congregations also had primary leaders/pastors who were younger, less likely to have conflict, and more optimistic about the future of their congregations than no/slow change congregations. Strikingly, these factors were also present in vital congregations..”
In his book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity & Getting Old, Parker Palmer writes “Unlike many folks my age, the young people I work with waste no time grieving the collapse of the “old order.” Of the religious educational, vocational, and political structures that helped form their elders’ lives. ….Instead of bemoaning what’s on its way out or already gone, many of the young adults I know are inventing forms of work and life that hold great promise — from political movements to religious life, to staying connected in communities of meaning.”
Each generation has gifts and wisdom to share. As I was growing in my ministry as a young clergy, I appreciated the support, insight, and encouragement of many pastors older and wiser than myself. As I grew older, I appreciate the new thinking and ideas of younger clergy that challenged, stretched and refreshed my ministry. With the decline in numbers of younger pastors, I grieve the significant loss of potential leaders that will invent, shape and teach the church to be what these times require. For the church to be all that we can be, we need a healthy mix of all generations; young, middle age and older pastors.